Quite a long time, five seconds, when you count it. And ever since Netflix reportedly warned its employees not to stare at a colleague for longer than that, the paradoxical effect is, inevitably, to make you stare and count.
The company’s new guideline is, of course, all part of corporate America’s response to the #MeToo scandal and if the Netflix directive is anything to go by, it’s going to result in the human race dying out in the US, because no one will be able to make a pass at anyone else, ever. It’s not that the individual prohibitions are onerous or particularly unreasonable; it’s that the collective effect can only be to make men – because it’s not aimed at women, is it? – take flight from anything pertaining to flirtation with the opposite sex.
Under the new advice to production staff delivered at a “harassment meeting”, it seems you should shout “stop, don’t do that again!” if a colleague has been “inappropriate” (I couldn’t bring myself to shout when I was actually assaulted on the way home from work, when I was younger); you mustn’t ask for someone’s number unless they have given permission for it to be distributed; touching colleagues for lengthy periods of time is forbidden; and you must report unwanted behaviour immediately.
My own hunch is that this is going to have an effect not on actual sex pests, but on timid young men who have to summon up courage by taking to gin before they ask a girl out to the pub. They’ll probably just resort to online pornography instead. It’s also going to be a downer for young women who, while they absolutely do not want to be molested by creeps, wouldn’t mind being stared at by someone they actually fancy. That’s how people get together nowadays – at work, not just on dating sites. But in this forbidding atmosphere who’s going to flirt? It’s like the first act of the Mikado, when those who dared flirt or wink, unless conjugally linked, would forthwith be beheaded. Except now you’d just be reported to the corporate equivalent of a chaperone. In response, I can only refer you to the Count Me Out of #MeToo letter by Brigitte Bardot and others to the French nation, before she too was got at by the thought police.
In his neglected first and only novel, The Aachen Memorandum, the historian Andrew Roberts envisaged a future where two people would have to sign a consent form 24 hours before engaging in sexual relations; it was meant to be a satire. You know, it seems more prophetic than satirical now.
PS I’m not sure that this draconian approach is actually going to work in diminishing the real problem of sexual violence against and exploitation of young women. In the run-up to the Irish abortion referendum, every halfwitted female who ever went to a convent – there are lots out there, it seems – rushed into print to share how simply awful it was that the nuns at school would talk to them about modesty and sexual restraint. Well, while the referendum was underway in Ireland, there were two real life cases of assaults on young girls, one from the Philippines, resulting in their deaths. And for that you really couldn’t blame the Church; quite the contrary. Corporate puritanism and #MeToo speak doesn’t even begin to address the reasons for this kind of sexual violence – my hunch is that it’s aggravated by the normalisation of pornography. All it does do is inhibit normal relations between the sexes. The combination is pretty toxic.